Thursday, June 04, 2020

Police Violence and Accountability: The Role of Drug Policy and a Vision of Reform

 People around the world reacted with horror, again, at the murder, again, of an unarmed person by police in the United States. On May 25, 2020, a Minneapolis, MN, USA, police officer steadily knelt on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, slowly crushing the life out of Mr. Floyd with an incomprehensible cold-blooded nonchalance. Mr. Floyd was a 46-year old Black man, unarmed, not resisting, and suspected of an offense involving $20. Only days earlier, a video was leaked of the February 23, 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year old Black man, by law enforcement vigilantes in Glynn County, GA, USA. On March 13, 2020, at about 1 a.m., Breonna Taylor, a sleeping, unarmed 26-year old Black woman, was shot eight times and killed by police who forced their way into her apartment in Louisville, KY, USA, on a "no-knock" warrant issued, looking for a drug suspect who lived 10 miles away.

Around the world, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators and thousands of organizations have been declaring their solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and all who protest these murders and the unceasing abuse of power by police and security forces around the world. In the U.S., about 1000 persons are killed by the police annually (1004 in 2019; 991 in 2018, Washington Post). U.S. cultural dominance has the effect of highlighting these deaths, yet officially over 5000 persons have been killed (or as many as 12,000 according to human rights groups) in the Philippines by police and security forces since June 2016, to cite a representative instance of a global pandemic of unlawful police violence and misconduct.

These murders are only the most dramatic culmination of wholesale police misconduct. People around the world are sick and tired of being routinely harassed by law enforcement officers and security forces, very frequently under the pretext of suspicion of possession or distribution of drugs. Countless times, every day in every nation, without any lawful justification, people are stopped, questioned, and frequently assaulted as they are searched for contraband or weapons. These stops are always accompanied by the threat of violence, explicit or implicit! In many places, these threats are part of a systematic extortion racket by the police and security forces -- the consequence of failing to pay a demanded bribe is violence or arrest. 

Large populations -- people of color in the United States, and religious and racial minorities and residents of poor neighborhoods in almost every nation – are fully aware of the culture of impunity surrounding police and security forces and live in dread that any police stop can result in incarceration, severe physical injury or death.  This culture of violence is global. From the favelas of Brasil to the islands of the Philippines, from the People’s Republic of China to the Russian Republic, from the United States of America to the Republic of South Africa, from Nigeria to El Salvador, from Syria to Jamaica -- the world’s police are generally not accountable to the communities they purport to serve. Whether the police are following the orders of autocrats like President Duterte in the Philippines or are indifferent to or in defiance of the civilian authorities in many American cities, there is a global crisis of police violence and unaccountability. In all these instances, this unlawful violence is part of a wholesale violation of human rights and due process rights -- including rights of freedom of association, expression, free exercise of religion and privacy -- that is justified and financed by the “war on drugs” and supported by the colonialist ideology of prohibition.

Drug prohibition exemplifies the fundamentally flawed psychology of “justice” systems that harsh punishment -- imposed or threatened – is the foundation of good behavior and the just retribution for misconduct. The flaw is that harsh punishment does not work.

While some lethal police violence grows out directly out of individual racism, one thread of institutional or organizational toleration for police violence grows out of a rationalization that “street justice” is necessary and deserved to compensate for the inefficiencies of prosecutors and courts that fail to punish. The toleration of extra-judicial violence builds a culture of impunity.

People who use drugs are prime targets for “street justice” and police violence. Due to the illegality of drug use, people who use drugs do so privately to avoid attracting attention. Yet, in many parts of the world, drug use is widespread and normative behavior, and justice system bureaucracies are unable to impose legal punishments on most drug users. Police, as the primary warriors in the “drug war” and able to impose the punishment on the spot, often feel justified using “street justice” -- intimidation, violence and confiscation of property in illegal stops -- in order to carry out the “war on drugs” and advancing its century-old goal of punishing drug users.

The specific legal and political character of the problem of police violence varies. In some nations the violence of the police follows the policies of the rulers -- elected or not, civilian or not.  In other nations, police violence is simply tolerated as one of the perquisites of the office, and the price endured of having police provide some measure of state sanctioned social control. And in other nations, such as the United States, the police violence is formally unauthorized but institutionally protected by Jim Crow-style legal doctrines of “qualified immunity” and collective bargaining agreements ratified by city, county and state governments.

Police misconduct seems to be intrinsic to most legal systems. Worldwide, the criminal justice bureaucracies are organized primarily to impose punishment, and operationally are largely indifferent to injustice. Police perjury, if not engaged in by every police officer, is so widespread that only the most egregious instances of police falsehoods are commented upon by court personnel or acted upon. Prosecutors in most nations routinely accept the cases brought by police and proffer the testimony of police witnesses. Judicial officers throughout the world generally favor police testimony and the representations of prosecutors. Concepts of due process set forth in Constitutions, national charters, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are widely disregarded around the world.

People of color in the United States, people who use drugs, and disadvantaged people everywhere know an encounter with a police officer is an extraordinarily risky situation that has the potential to become a life-changing catastrophe. In most white-dominated societies, the police are particularly uncontrolled in their behavior toward racial minorities. In some parts of the United States, the contemporary state and municipal police forces arose from the slave patrols created to prevent enslaved persons from running away or rebelling. The authority to catch escaped enslaved persons and “deliver [them] up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labor may be due,” is today still part of the text of the U.S. Constitution (Art. IV, sec. 2, cl. 3). In other parts of the United States, the early functions of the police were to protect property-owning elites from immigrants, the indigenous and internal migrants. Supposed “crimes” such as vagrancy or loitering have for generations been used to control people of color, the poor, the young, and those with disabilities, emotional distress, mental illness or the disease of addiction. Legal reforms of the abuse of those outmoded laws have been circumvented in much of the United States by the use of the drug laws.

Of course, we oppose violence, theft, violation of human rights and exploitation. However, drug prohibition empowers criminals and criminal organizations to exploit the peasants and farmers who cultivate poppy, coca, and cannabis. The inevitable disagreements of commerce, when they arise in the illegal drug trade, can only be resolved through violence because the nonviolent dispute resolution mechanisms of legal commerce are unavailable. The trade in highly valuable illegal drugs, carried on outside the legitimate channels of commerce, can only be protected by illegal armed groups, and their exchange for cash is perpetually at risk of armed robbery. This is a greater problem, of course, in the consumer countries. Sadly, throughout the world, police agencies are corrupted by the illegal drug trade. One must consider how extensively the resistance of the police everywhere to oversight, regulation and accountability by management and civil society is due to dependence of police officers on income from the illegal drug trade and bribery.

Thus, not only is the war on drugs the pretext for the initiation of police-civilian contact for the purpose of extortion, surveillance, social control and invidious racial subjugation, but the war on drugs is a driver of police resistance to accountability.

It should go without saying that there is a legitimate role for proper policing, but policing as it has been practiced demands wholesale reform of police and domestic security agencies worldwide. It must be acknowledged that policing as currently organized is dangerous, but police behavior and misconduct have fueled enormous resentment and inflamed passions for revenge. Enforcing unpopular laws in a high-handed manner increases the risk of violent resistance to police officers.

But many police agencies are so tainted by a culture of impunity and grievance that they must be reconstituted from the ground up.  Entirely new management needs to be hired, empowered to vet potential recruits. The functions of the police services need to be wholly reorganized. Police in the community have the responsibility to bring services to individuals and families that are troubled. Whenever there is a response to a call for service, a key question a police officer should ask is, “Are everyone’s needs in this household being met?” The primary role of the police should be crime prevention. The investigation of crime is a specialized function of the police, not its primary function. The primary goal of the police agencies should be maximizing health and safety, not “law enforcement.” The police should be as vigilant about pollution, chemical spills, adulterated food, labor exploitation because of the many victims who are powerless, as they are about their more traditional defense of property and certain classes of “violence.”

Police should not be trained to self-identify as “crime fighters.” Recruits need to be carefully screened, and properly trained to create a culture of service to the communities in which they operate and to be scrupulous honesty. Police training regarding encounters with the public must be completely reconceptualized to conflict de-escalation and to deprioritize the use of force. Police officers must be paid an appropriate professional salary. Internal systems of management, control and discipline must be vibrant and transparent.

Now is the time to stand with #BlackLivesMatter and those who are demanding not only accountability by the police for their acts of misconduct, but wholesale, structural reconstruction of the criminal justice system and the role of the police within it.

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